It’s the classic movie monster’s dilemma: You either die a villain or live long enough to see yourself become the hero.
Frankenstein and King Kong were never, of course, entirely unsympathetic. Count Dracula was pure evil for a long time, but he has gotten more complicated, and for decades vampires have been heroes, antiheroes and romantic leads. On Sesame Street, where friendly monsters abound, the Count, sounding like Bela Lugosi, teaches young children numbers.
Darth Vader was redeemed in the end. The Terminator came back as the good guy. Maleficent and the Wicked Witch of the West recently received humanizing back stories.
And then there’s Gojira, or Godzilla: perhaps the archetypal movie monster-turned-hero.
At first a metaphorical expression of Japanese dread over the nuclear destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Toho Studios’ most popular kaiju gradually metamorphosed by dint of sheer popularity into a welcome opponent of even more fearful characters, eventually becoming a beloved defender of Japan and humanity in general.
This seems to be the pattern. At first we create monsters to embody our anxieties or the evils we fear. Yet the monsters are often more compelling than the heroes pitted against them, and we can’t bear to leave them as unmitigated villains. So they evolve into metaphors for something else: the unknown, perhaps, or our own capacity for moral growth.
The humanization of monsters can entail a subversive critique of the social structures or norms that judged them monsters in the first place. If the Beast isn’t evil, then the pitchfork-wielding mob is, and indicting witch-hunters easily goes hand in hand with humanizing witches.
Whether such subversiveness is pernicious or salutary varies, naturally, with the target of the critique. Sympathy for the devil is tantamount to censure of God, or at least of those who speak for him. Yet as long as human beings wrongly demonize one another, or project their worst fears onto the unknown, there will be a legitimate place for sympathetic monsters.
“Slaying dragons is a Western concept,” says Zhang Ziyi’s Dr. Chen in Godzilla: King of the Monsters, responding to a query from an American colleague. In Asian culture, she explains, dragons are creatures of good omen.
Yet the Godzilla franchise started out slaying its fire-breathing (or nuclear-heat-breathing) star in his very first outing. (Perhaps, representing American atomic might, he was a Western dragon?)
Then, rather like the first How to Train Your Dragon premise, redeeming its dragons by imputing all their mayhem to one truly malevolent mega-dragon, the Godzilla franchise rehabilitated the big guy by supplying him with other draconian monsters to slay, notably King Ghidorah, unambiguously a menacing, triple-headed dragon.
The 2014 Godzilla reboot, which launched Legendary Entertainment’s MonsterVerse, followed this approach. “Nature has an order — a power to restore balance,” said Ken Wantanabe’s Dr. Serizawa, explaining that Godzilla is here to keep the other kaiju in check.
In Kong: Skull Island it was likewise revealed that King Kong played a similar role, defending the island’s indigenous human inhabitants from the far nastier creatures living there.
Now, though, Godzilla: King of the Monsters raises a new possibility: Perhaps the world’s giant monsters have evolved as a kind of planetary defense mechanism and the menace they have arisen to fight is (wait for it) human overpopulation, pollution and war.
“We are the infection,” argues a scientist.
“You’re a monster,” another character charges. And, in fact, it becomes clear that the scientist has made a dreadful mistake.
Yet, like the last two Avengers movies, which ultimately had no compelling counterargument or alternative vision to the villainous Thanos’ nihilistic Malthusian argument for wiping out half of all life in the universe, King of the Monsters can’t say why it rejects misanthropic kaiju-based eco-terrorism. (“Murderous carnivores” is another scientist’s dim assessment of humanity, and this time there’s no rebuttal.)
They don’t call them kaiju in the films, of course. The 2014 film introduced the acronym “Muto,” for “massive unidentified terrestrial organism,” but bizarrely applied it only to the one species Godzilla fought in that film. Clearly it should have been a catch-all term, like “UFO.” Maybe Muto wouldn’t have worked because at least one creature in the MonsterVerse turns out not to be terrestrial.
In any case, King of the Monsters introduces a new term, “Titans,” covering giant beasties of all types — and they’re all here, pretty much. At least, all the big Toho stars are here: Mothra, Rodan, King Ghidora. It’s a regular clash of the, well, I guess they can’t call it that. Only Kong is kept offstage in the buildup to next year’s Godzilla vs. Kong.
The 2014 film called Godzilla “a god, for all intents and purposes,” and Kong was worshipped as a god by the natives of Skull Island. King of the Monsters leans into these quasi-religious themes.
The Titans are said to be Earth’s “original and rightful rulers,” the “first gods.” These words come from the scientist who called humanity an “infection,” but the idea of the Titans as gods seems to have more warrant.
When an incredulous senator asks Dr. Serizawa, who believes that Godzilla is the key to peaceful coexistence between humans and Titans, whether he wants to make Godzilla our pet, Serizawa replies, “No — we will be his.”
In one key shot in Mexico King Ghidorah crouches atop one of the volcanoes overlooking Mexico City, roaring to the heavens with an enormous cross looming in the foreground.
Ghidorah is expressly called a “false king”; this shot explicitly casts him as a Satanic figure, even an Antichrist. By implication, of course, there’s a true king, a Christ figure, and you know who it is. (Actually, there’s more than one.)
It’s kind of amazing that all these ideas could be in a movie this aggressively stupid and clumsy.
I’ve said almost nothing so far about the human characters. Human characters are never the selling point of a Godzilla movie, but this one is downright baffling in its borderline hostility toward its characters.
At the center of the human thread is a broken family with a back story so closely and specifically involved with the Titans that I thought they must be characters I had forgotten from the 2014 film, which made such little impression on me that I remembered almost nothing about it.
Then I rewatched the earlier film and was surprised to find it a better and more interesting film than I credited it at the time. Certainly a better film overall than King of the Monsters, except for one major thing: King of the Monsters achieves real grandeur in its kaiju battles and the earlier film doesn’t.
At times it evokes the wild final battle in Aquaman, except the human actors don’t matter at all. With Mothra, King of the Monsters even achieves a kind of beauty not rooted in grotesquerie.
True fans may feel that the MonsterVerse, like the DC Extended Universe, is pushing its pieces onto the board too quickly, and the alliance of Godzilla and Mothra is established before Legendary got a shot at remaking Godzilla vs. Mothra.
That aside, King of the Monsters is catnip for a certain kind of kaiju fan. You know who you are.
Caveat Spectator: Intense action violence, mayhem and menace; recurring profanity and crude language. Teens and up.